Voyage of the Damned – First Rough Write-Up Friday, Sep 4 2009 

Okay, here’s my first attempt to cohesively write-up the rules.  Since I settled on some of these points about 5 minutes ago, my usual “subject to change” clause is definitely in effect (though I want to get it nailed down so I can get it written up for the 7-day deadline).

First, some notes about how playing this game differs from most RPGs:

Voyage of the Damned (VotD) is a game about telling the stories of flawed individuals struggling against their own flaws and the tangled scars and betrayals that come from a small group of ambitious men and women forced into cramped quarters after months of viciously scheming against each other.  There is also a tragic, haunting theme of death, judgment, humanity, and loss to the mix.

In many ways, VotD differs from most RPG’s.  The card draws and corresponding “winning” and “losing” are completely based on luck of the draw.  There are no skills, “hero points”, or bonuses and penalties or any kind, meaning also that there are no strategies or tactics that help you win.  Instead, the players tell the stories of their characters and how they’ve interact with the other players in the past and the future.

That’s intentional–in many ways VotD is closer to improvisational theatre games, where outside elements and constraints are introduced and the actors must incorporate them–“no” is not allowed as a response to an imposed element.  The card pulls introduce elements and constraints to incorporate into the narrative and the rules are all procedures for how the group tells interpenetrated stories and weave their individual stories into the story of the whole ship.  It’s a strange but true phenomenon that those constraints tend to make creativity and powerful stories easier rather than harder.

The other thing that may feel odd is that your character’s emotional reactions are largely taken out of your hand.  You can’t choose whether your character lashes out in frustration or if he handles the situation with cool aplomb.  You can (and do) choose how you attempt to act, but (as often seems to be the case in real-life) our best intentions may fall apart in the heat of passions.  In a way, it’s not so different from attempting to run your opponent through with a sword or convince the police officer to let you go with a warning in other games, but emotional responses have generally been firmly in the control of the player.  Now, whether this is “realistic” (and I could make an argument either way) isn’t really the point.  Whether it’s fun… well, it’s my hope that you will have fun and that you’ll remember the stories that emerge for a long time to come.

 

Now for the rules:

Overview:

  • The entire story is divided into three Stages, representing both the character’s returning memories and humanity and the struggles as the Seas of the Dead resist letting them escape to carry their mysterious cargo back to Queen and home. 
  • Each Stage is made up of one or more Challenges, which are threats or obstacles relating to the Stage that have to be overcome to keep sailing (note: the rules are such that the players will go through all three stages until the End-Game, and so they can’t technically “fail” to overcome any of the Challenges…).
  • Each player gets to take a single turn for each Challenge–each is opposed by another character through flashbacks
  • There can be any number of Challenges per Phase; a Phase ends after a Challenge when the majority of players choose to move to the next.  It’s certainly possible to set a mandatory number of Challenges per phase before beginning (such as one each to run a game in a single session), but I like the idea of a more fluid, organic approach based on the flow of the narrative.
  • The last Stage ends in the End-Game, in which the final fate of the ship and the characters are narrated.

The Deck of Cards:

  • Separate out only the face cards and Aces for each of the four suits.  The resulting deck will have 16 cards.
  • The meaning of the cards is dependent upon the context; in some cases they are an Oracle, introducing elements into play, while in others they have a value and are used in conflict resolution–in the case of conflict resolution, they still act as a color oracle, introducing elements to be incorporated into the narrative.

Conflict Resolution:

  • For conflict resolution, each card has one of two Strengths (the higher strength wins in a conflict) depending on which color is Dominant (determined at the start of the player’s turn–see below)
  • The higher suit (based on dominant color) wins, with the face value (A beats K beats Q beats J) breaking ties
  • If black is dominant, Spades beats Hearts beats Clubs beats Diamonds (i.e. A♠>K♠>Q♠>J♠> A♥>K♥>Q♥>J♥> A♣>K♣>Q♣>J♣> A♦>K♦>Q♦>J♦)
  • If red is dominant, Hearts beats Spades beats Diamonds beats Clubs (i.e. A♥>K♥>Q♥>J♥> A♠>K♠>Q♠>J♠> A♦>K♦>Q♦>J♦> A♣>K♣>Q♣>J♣)
  • I will have a chart on the character sheet giving each card a value from 1-16 for Black and Red for quick comparison (I will also make Avery labels that can be printed and stuck on the cards to make it easier)

Oracle meanings:

Each suit has a general meaning (thematic; challenge type):

  • Spades (♠): Power; physical obstacle
  • Hearts (♥): Intimacy; emotional obstacle
  • Clubs (♣): Violence; physical threat
  • Diamonds (♦): Silence; emotional threat

Each face has a general meaning (Noun; method): 

  • Ace (A): Place, object, or goal; pursue desire obsessively)
  • King (K): Man; use hierarchy or personal power)
  • Queen (Q): Woman; use relationships or debt)
  • Jack (J): Child; reveal vulnerability and openness)

Finally, each of the 16 cards has it’s own unique meanings (mixture of suit and face, plus imagery evocative of the setting:

  • They’ll also be printed on the character sheet and on Avery labels (along with the Red and Black Strengths, see above)
  • Potentially I’d create a deck with artwork and the like, but certainly not for the rough draft stage of game Chef (it would get me the POD medal…)

I have pages of notes and thoughts on the specific cards, but I’ll have to post them later (it isn’t critical to understand the rules and also it’s still pretty rough)

The Phases:

There are three Phases, always in the same order:

  1. The Sea: As the characters awaken, the Seas of the Dead try to keep them from remembering their Humanity and to keep them from escaping; Challenges include things like violent storms, rocky reefs, sea monsters, alluring sirens, etc.; Help comes from the Seabirds, who show the way and spur the characters to remember, no matter how painful
  2. The Star: After regaining much of their memory, humanity (and grievances), the characters remember the reason for their journey (though not yet the results or what is in the mysterious, locked cargo hold), but the divisions and conflicts between the characters intensify; Challenges in the Star phase include the need to work together to overcome a challenge while old feuds and wounds resurface with increasing power–generally played out a bit like a soap opera–also the desire to get home and the urge to discover what their cargo is intensify (though they can’t succeed at discovering the cargo until the next phase); Help comes from the dreadful zombie crew of the ship, who begin noticing and interacting with the players for the first time–their disposition depends on the overall scores of the Ship
  3. The Gates – The ship reaches the Gates to the Seas of the Living and the chance to escape death and take their cargo to queen and home is tantalizingly close, but the discovery of the nature of the cargo along with full memory of what they had to do to get it will likely be painful at best, and the nature of the zombie crew is at last revealed–they wish to have the characters join them to sail the ship through a damned eternity; Challenges in the Gates phase come from the zombie crew who do everything in their power to push the characters to become bound by fear, hate, anger, and regret so that they can’t escape, and the cargo hold can finally be opened (bringing with it memories of the end of their journey that cursed them and brought them to the Seas of the Dead) and that discovery will be tainted by the total ship scores–finally, along with the nature of the cargo, the End-Game is played out and the final fate of the ship and individual characters is played out; There is no help in this Phase–their damnation or redemption is being played out

Playing the Phases:

  • At the start of each Phase, he GM sets the stage–in the first Phase, this is the characters rising, then in the later Phases the GM caps the last Phase and explains the new Phase to the Players
  • Then each player draws a single card–this is an Oracle draw (using the Oracle definitions for that card)
  • Each player describes their character remembering something related to that card, but only a fragment (as always, the cards are vague and evocative, so what it means is up to the player)–this becomes their Desire for that Phase, what they are driven to remember (and possibly avenge)–there is not system impact of the Desire, it is an element the player should incorporate into their character and focus on that Phase
  • Then the GM begins the first Challenge…

Challenges:

Framing the Challenge:

The GM flips one or more cards to setup the Challenge (players are welcome to make suggestions, but the GM makes all final decisions and has final authority of what is included).

The GM flips a card and looks at the the oracle descriptors, the challenge type (see suit above), and any other factors.  They should begin describing the Challenge.  They can continue flipping other cards to add clarifications, complications, etc. until they feel they have the conflict clearly defined.  Reshuffle the deck.

Note that it’s perfectly appropriate to base challenges around cooperation or interactions between the characters (e.g. “As the storm rises, you all have to work together to keep the ship from crashing into the rocks–but something about the strange storm brings old angers close to the surface…”)

Creating the Player Web:

At the start of each Challenge, put a piece of paper with each character’s name into hat or bowl or whatever and have each player draw one.  If any players drew their own characters, then redraw.  Do not reveal who you drew.  That is the character that your character will oppose this Challenge.

Except for not drawing yourself, there are no other rules (e.g. it’s fine to draw the same character twice in a row).  Groups should feel fine to change or add rules to this (for example, it could work to have each player choose who they’ll oppose on the fly, but you’d have to make sure that the last character didn’t oppose themselves).

The Player Turns:

Each player gets a turn to have their character try to address the Challenge. 

On their turn, the acting player draws a card–this sets the Stakes of the scene.  The color of the card (red or black) determines whether connection (Connection and Isolation) or dominance (Cohesion and Strife) is at stake for the ship (see below) as well as determining the Strength of cards (i.e. the order of suits–see above).

The active player frames the scene on the ship, using the color (and any other details from the card that inspire them) they flipped as guidance.  What actions they take are completely up to them, but need to be attempts to address the Challenge.

Due to the confined quarters on the ship, every character is present in every scene, so other players are welcome to make suggestions and have their character act.  The rule, though, is that the acting player has final say and can decline any suggestion or action (declining another character’s action could mean they stop it in the narrative or could mean that they tell the player to hold off because it isn’t relevant to this scene or what they want to play out).

At some point after the acting player frames their scene, the opposing character steps up. 

The opposing character draws a card.  The person, place, or object represented by the  face of the card and/or the thematic element must be incorporated.  Also, the suit should influence, too.  Using the card, they frame a flashback scene involving their character and the acting character.  The idea is that the flashback will have bearing on the actions in the present, likely showing a weakness in the acting character or bringing up negative interactions that disrupt the acting player’s attempts to get cooperation or connection with another player.

Both players help tell the story of the flashback.  Also, other players can make suggestions or have their character in the flashback.  But the ultimate authority belongs to the opposing character, even to describe terrible deeds or failures of the acting character in the past.

(I don’t think the above description is quite right and I think the way flashbacks are played out needs a clearer write-up, but I’m running out of time and this is a rough draft.)

Finally, the acting character draws a resolution card and compares the Strength to the card the opposing character drew.  (Remember that the color from the acting character’s first draw for Stakes affects Strength).

The results of the conflict will raise on of the ship’s four stats by one: Cohesion, Connection, Strife, or Isolation.  All stats start at zero.  Their only mechanical impact is in the End-Game.  Also, only relative rank matters (5 vs. 2 is the same as 50 vs. 20… the length of the game will determine how high the numbers get).

If the acting character wins, then either Connection (if the Stakes are red) or Cohesion (if the Stakes are black) is raised by one for the ship. If the opposing character wins, then either Strife (if the Stakes are black) or Isolation )if the Stakes are red).

Then it’s the next player’s turn, and so on until all players get a single turn.

Then the next Challenge begins or the game moves to the next Phase.

The End-Game:

During the Gate phase, bring conflicts to a head and resolve any dangling narrative threads.  Once the group is satisfied, tally the total scores in the ship stats to see which is highest.  If there is a tie, do a final “do or die” scene to break the tie:

  • If Cohesion is highest, then the ship is successful
  • If Connection is highest, then the ship is redeemed
  • If Strife is highest, then the ship is damned
  • If Isolation is highest, then the ship is chained

But that’s only part of the story.  First, what “successful”, “redeemed”, “damned” and “chained” mean are intentionally vague.  Also, note that it says the ship rather than the characters.  The fate of the ship and it’s cargo must be narrated.  The general assumption is that the GM describes the fate of the ship with suggestions form the players, but this can be changed.

Finally, the fate of individual characters is narrated by their player.

That’s it, game over.  Hope you enjoyed it.

 

Yeah… that’s very rough, but I don’t really have time to revise much (plus it’s meant to be a rough draft).  I’ll polish both the rules and the write-up in the next couple days, but that’s a start.  Whew.

-John B.

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Voyage of the Damned – Playing Card Mechanics Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

This is not a complete mechanic, but I thought I’d jot it down (for one thing I’m curious if it’s been done before–I’ve seen a fair number of games, but by no means all or even most).

The Deck

A standard 52 card deck of playing cards.  For now I’m assuming the Jokers are taken out, though maybe I’ll decide to keep them if I think of a use for them.

Divide the deck into two piles.

  • All the face cards (K, Q, & J) plus the Ace – 16 cards (4 cards x 4 suits)
  • All numbered cards (from 2-10) – 36 cards (9 cards x 4 suits)

Numbered Deck – The numbered cards (2-9) are used for conflict resolution.  Flipping a card is basically the same as rolling a d10 (well, 1d9+1 technically :-P).

In addition, each suit acts as a minor oracle introducing color into the scene.  These are more color or flavor and don’t have any mechanical impact.  I’ve started toying with what each suit would introduce, but it’s still really rough (I’ll put it up in later posts).  I’m leaning towards having two or three categories:

  1. The Court: This is what the suits mean in the flashback scenes.  There would be an emphasis on intrigue, and all of the options would be fairly negative (betrayal, threats, theft [of ideas, credit, etc.], and so on).
  2. Connection: This is what the suits mean in the present, during the attempts to connect.  They would either be tied to the four stats (symbolically–Silence equates to fear, withdrawal, secrets, etc.), to the thematic ingredients (Desire, Seabirds, Death, the Star, etc.), or to both.  Probably to the stats and corresponding reactions, unless I don’t have “The Journey” as a separate category
  3. The Journey:  This is what the suit means in relation to the journey through the Seas of the Dead, the curse, judgment, etc.  It would probably be used in conjunction with the face deck (see below).

Here are my initial rough ideas on the four suits:

  • Spades: Power (it’s strandardly the strongest suit, it’s black, which pairs with violence for clubs, and because the Hearts and Clubs seemed obvious)
  • Hearts: Connection (because, you know, it’s a heart)
  • Clubs: Violence; the Court (because the clubs symbol looks like the fleur-de-lis, which is tied to the queen and faith, and so the court, and clubs as weapons connects with violence)
  • Diamonds: Silence (mostly because it’s red, like Connection and the Connection-Silence and Power-Violence connections make sense to me), which means it will also be fortifying, webs of lies, etc.

Face Deck – The face card deck acts as an oracle; a card is drawn and it colors the following scenes.  Each card represents something.  Also, the suits have meaning here as they do in the numbered deck (see above).  This is at the Journey level.  It might be drawn once per cycle of player turns, but I think it more likely it will be drawn at the start of each player’s turn:

  1. Face Deck oracle draw (introduces the threats and events in the journey–narrated by GM, plus represents characters that the players need to weave in to the flashback narratives)
  2. Flashback draw (number deck) by target player for the flashback scene
  3. Present draw (number deck) by acting character to resolve whether connection made or failed 

Also, the specific face card has meaning, obviously.  In the flashback scenes, they are people or other elements that have to be woven in.  In the present, they may also be characters–though the Captain, the zombie Crew, the Seagulls, the other PCs not involved, etc.  The below associations are rough and likely to change.  The characters listed first are in the flashback and the characters listed second in italics are in the present:

  • Ace: The object of Desire (the subject of the brief Desire image–pulling this requires that Desire to be examined on a bit in the flashback); The Star–it represents your Desire and the overwhelming animal need for what it represents that was strong enough to keep you trapped and damned on the ship instead of passing on–it is a reminder of your need and desire, driving you on.
  • King: Another player character in an allied role (almost certainly temporary and for that character’s own interest–after all, the rules of the game will almost certainly turn them against you in an upcoming scene if they haven’t already back-stabbed you)–that character will be woven into the story (they won’t have a narrative impact, unless I do something with the face cards impacting resolution–see note below); The Seabirds–they represent the impulse towards humanity, connection, and self-judgment; their touch is painful but it helps lift the fog of amnesia and confusion the characters arose with.
  • Queen: The Queen herself (whether directly, indirectly, through her agents, etc.), also her favor; The Queen, again, as well as the original goals and schemes of the voyage–this draws you back into ambitions, jealousies, etc. of your time in court, it helps you remember the other characters and your past, though that tends to galvanize you towards anger, hate, revenge, etc.
  • Jack: Another player character in an opposed role, scheming against you and likely helping the target character (though also likely opposing you both)–that character will be woven into the story (they won’t have a narrative impact, unless I do something with the face cards impacting resolution–see note below); The Crew (if your Violence is higher, the Captain notices you and draws you in, while if your Silence is higher, the crew begins interacting with you and pulling you into their mindless actions–I’ll post more about my ideas for the crew and captain in a later post)–they represent your potential damnation and the pull away from any sort of redemption–if they get their way, you’ll be part of the crew (maybe even replacing the captain) forever…

Note that the acting character is the focus of the scene, so any reference to “the player”, “you”, etc. refers to the acting character.  The target character will also be developed, but their function in that scene is in relation to the acting character.

I mayalso have some other significance that interacts with the number deck resolution system.  I’m not leaning that way, but I’m leaving the option open (maybe letting the audience of the other players assign it or something like that?).  If I did, it would probably be a way for other players to give bonuses to one player, likely based on who they feel is telling the best story or something like that.

 Suits and Stats

The last thought I thought I’d throw out in this post is that the suits correspond with the four stats.  I might do something with that, where if it matches your suit, it does something (a bonus, changes the stakes, etc.).

 

And that’s my initial thoughts on cards as resolution mechanic, major oracle, and minor color oracle.  I have to say that I really like the idea of splitting out the face cards into an oracle deck and having just the the number cards in the resolution deck, with the suits spreading across both decks.

-John B.

Voyage of the Damned – Divergent Versions and Complexity of Mechanics Wednesday, Sep 2 2009 

As I work on mechanics, two separate versions of the game are starting to emerge in my head.  Maybe there’s a happy medium between the two, but they feel like two separate beasts.

I’d particularly welcome suggestions, thoughts, critiques, and other comments on this one… (hint, hint). 🙂

1) The Underworld Voyage

Whether literally in the Seas of the Dead or not, in this version the voyage gets more attention, being about equal to the flashbacks, attempts at conenction, and humanity piece of play.  Forming connections, flashbacks and all that are half the story (maybe even 2/3) rather than the sole focus.

In very broad terms, I’m picturing something like alternating between GM-driven Challenges (probably three Challenges, going for a mythic thing) and the player-driven attempts to connect (the flashbacks, et al, in my lat post).  The GM-driven Challenges are conflicts on the ship or off the ship against external issues.  Perhaps the ship crashes on an island full of hungry ghosts, or whatever.  This gives a sort of Odyssey vibe combined with making the voyage to overcome the curse a literal thing rather than simply hinging on whether they can overcome their pasts and divisions.

I’m picturing something like Mouse Guard, with alternating turns where the GM runs a Challenge then the players each get one connection turn then the GM again then the players, and so on.

In this version, I’d probably have four stats under Humanity:  Connection/Hearts, Power/Spades, Silence/Diamonds, and Violence/Clubs. 

The red suits (Hearts and Diamonds) are both about openness–with an constructive  side (reaching out/connecting) and destructive/reactive side(silence/withdrawing).  The black suits would be about asserting yourself–with a constructive side (dominance/taking charge) and a destructive/reactive side (lashing out/violence). 

Not surprisingly, I’m building up to a playing card system with this.  I have some ideas (some of which I talk about at the bottom of this post) but for now that’s enough.   There’d be stakes in conflicts (do you reach out? Then Connection and Silence are both on the table to be raised–Connection for success and Silence for failure, and vice versa for asserting yourself).  The four stats would increase.  There’d be no safety valve and no way to lower any of them later.

Those stats would matter for the flashback/connection conflicts as well as the GM-driven Challenges.

Finally, in this version I’d play down the End-Game mechanics or cut them.  Reaching the last Challenge (the final judgment) is what triggers the resolution, rather than some balance of stats kicking it off or favor or whatever.

2) Focus on Flashbacks

This is the version I presented in my last post.  The present is mainly a frame for the flashbacks.  What happens in the present is the conflicts to reach out.  Overall the story is a psychodrama; there’s no big events on the present voyage–at least until the End-Game.

It’s mechanically simpler.  I’d probably only have Connection, Silence, and Violence (and no Dominance).  Whether I’d use cards, dice, or something else is up in the air. (see below for some thoughts on the what I want mechanics to feel like).  Either way, a single die roll or card flip on each side would be enough.

In this version, I’d probably go GM-less.  I’d also really consider making it a game meant to be played in a single evening (possibly with some options and tweaks to allow longer games–maybe simply tweaking the speed of advancement of stats and the triggers for End-Game).

 

I’m going back and forth.  So much so that I’m almost considering making both versions of the game concurrently and seeing which one turns out better and is more fun to actually play.

 

Some Musings about the Pomp of Mechanics in this Game

So I recently had a conversation with a friend about the role of mechanics, dice, etc…  For games where the mechanics are basically a randomizer (i.e. not games where player strategies are as important as the dice) could really be stripped down to roll a bunch of dice, add some modifiers and the whole game’s done–the rest is just acting it out.  But neither of us really liked that.  The rolling, flipping, scripting, adding up numbers, declaring actions, or whatever that game involves, are part of the ritual, the pomp of role-playing.  Whether they matter statistically is a lot less important than how they shape the experience of play.

For this game, the dice or cards are going to introduce elements that shape the story and your character in ways you can’t control, only react to.  There’s a sense of waiting to find out how big a bastard you were in the past and whether you can overcome it or if you’ll sink deeper.  So it should be a tense reveal.  It’s fine to have a single roll or a single card flip, but you should be ready and waiting tensely… and you should be able to tell in a second or less what just happened.  I want everyone to be watching the die or card flip and I want them to cheer or groan immediately.

Narration is also important.  In fact, I think the roll or flip should happen early: Frame the scene, (set the stakes?), roll the dice, narrate.  The point is to want something, have it hinge on the dice, then roll… and have the dice be immediately readable.

Another important thing, for this game, many things that are traditionally pure player-choice (how the character is played, PC on PC interactions, your backstory, etc.) are largely mandated by the mechanics in this game.  In fact, the main conflict of the game (connection) would be a given in most games.   You don’t have complete control over whether you reacted with anger or withdrawing, etc. in the past.  There’s a balance where a lot of things are driven by the dice or cards but you have a lot of narrative control to weave it in and say what it means.  I think that constraints aid creativity and tend to lead to better results than more open situations a lot of times.

Note: I’m talking about this game; for other games different systems may work better.  For example, rolling lots of dice, adding successes, angling for bonuses, re-reolls, etc., can be satisfying, too.  But for this game, the tension comes from the elements out of your control and those need to be spotlighted heavily and all the otehr stuff stripped away.  But the spotlight’s got to be big enough, too… it can’t be a casual roll with no tension.

On the other hand, the first version of the game above might involve more detailed mechanics.  In that one, I’m considering doing things like dealing two cards the player can look at and one face down.  The two the player sees can be played in either order.  The first card is the stakes (and the suit matters) while the second card is the score to resolve the conflict (and the number matters).  Sometimes it’ll be easy–your higher card is different from the suit you prefer for the stakes, but sometimes you’ll have to choose which gets the one card that you want for both.

 

Like I said, I’m conflicted.  Right now, writing this, I prefer the second game version and the simpler mechanics above (i.e. a single roll/card flip on each side).  An hour ago I preferred the first game version and the mechanics in the paragraph above about choosing which order to play the cards.  (Note: The simpler system could work for either version of the game, but I’d only use the more complicated, choose-the-order card system for the first version.)

Again, comments very welcome.

 

And that’s it for tonight.

-John B.